99. The Big Picture – Michael W. Smith
THE BIG PICTURE (1986)
Michael W. Smith
It has been said here and elsewhere (and quite often) that a CCM album’s depth, quality and creativity will be inversely proportionate to its sales success. Meaning; the better the album the fewer the people that will purchase it. This appears to remain true even for CCM’s golden boy and most popular and prolific male artist, Michael W Smith.
The Big Picture, Smith’s artistic triumph remains his weakest selling album and the only album in his career not to reach even gold status. After a strong debut and the utterly forgettable argyle sock of a sophomore release (aptly titled “2”), Smith grabbed the CCM world by the throat with an album that was sonically, creatively and musically miles ahead of the rest of the Nashville pablum for the time.
From the dark purple and gold hues of the artwork to the tasteful technological advances and superior production, the Big Picture is great from start to finish. What keeps the album from falling off the tracks in a travesty of technological traps is that the songs themselves are very organic and real. Taking themes from the culture and wrapping them in modern sounds with a clear and poignant response to the baggage those theme bring along makes the album the one worthy release from Smith in the Top 100.
The album start with the ode to nihilistic escapism in “Lamu.” The once-thought fictitious paradise is actually off the Kenyan coast and serves as the backdrop for the person who hopes to escape the world and its struggles by venturing off to the furthest point they can think of. But, as the song contends, you can never escape the “One inside of you.”
The song starts with nearly a minute of musical introduction and cost the song any chance of radio reception. In fact, the entire album is filled with 5 and 6 minute musical expressions and and radio airplay nearly impossible. The heavy guitar solos and pounding electronica probably didn’t help as well.
“Wired for Sound” is the perfect example of medium meeting message. Here the electronic gadgets employed in the production of the song match the message of a world consumed by technology. This technology clouds many from seeing the truth and the song warns of this danger.Even Smiths voice is given electronic embellishment to subtly continue the message.
“Old Enough to Know,” the most “organic” sounding song on the record with limited technology. The song could have been the biggest hit from the album if it wasn’t a warning against pre0marital sex. Not that the warning was seen as a negative, but it was simply a subject CCM radio avoided like the plague. the heroine, Rebecca, is encouraged not to gibe into the pressure and Smith twists the common phrase about being old enough to have sex and uses it to declare she is old enough to know not to.
Continuing in the youth oriented themes that populate the album, “Pursuit of the Dream” is a very positive call to achieve your dreams and goals. It is also here where the album takes its name. Often in the pursuit of the dream one will miss out on the big picture and accomplishing what God wants for the individual.I recommend listening to this song (and the whole album for that matter) using headphones as there is simply a ton of “stuff” going on musically here that fills every nook and cranny of digitized tape.
The one monster hit from the album (still a rather lengthy 4:30) was the song Rocketown. The title namesake became a youth oriented hang out/nightclub for Christians soon after. The ironic thing is that in the song, Rocketown is a bar where people are looking for sex and fulfillment without Christ. The song itself is very creative for a radio single, especially given the time period. the bass line though as a bit of a mellow “Man in Motion” thing going for it. In the song there is a mysterious Christ-like character that enters Rocketown and entices a young man (Smith) to follow Him to truth. Smith’s own label would also bear the name.
The nearly 6 minute “Voices” sounds the most like Smith’s previous work with the worship like feel and classical musical landscape. Really, it sounds like a song recorded for the first two albums but was “suped up” for the Big Picture and made more musically relevant.
“The Last Letter” returns the album to the more technologically driven rock. The weakest of the songs lyrically and musically, it still sounds better than most of his later work. The lull does not last long, though, with the following “Going Thru the Motions.” This is just a great song from melody to music. It also has the biggest hook of any chorus on the album and served as a great concert song. The song decries the common complacency that sets in on many Christians who simply go through the Christian life without making a difference. In the end they are living a lie Smith exclaims.
The one 3 minute number is a rocking instrumental “Tearin’ Down the walls.” the song does just that. Great groove, killer guitar work and a ton of technological experiments jammed into three minutes.
“You’re Alright” is the most straight ahead rock and roll on the album. Guitar and drum driven with the keyboards acting in support. The song deals with maintaining a positive self-image through Christ by working on the inside rather than on the outside. This is the last song on the album other than a piano outro the closes the trip to the Big Picture.
Producer John Potoker had worked with Brian Eno, Madonna and a host of others and had a huge influence on the musical direction and big production sound. Many will obviously find the music and production technique dated, but one of this lists presuppositions was to judge albums based on the time they were recorded and what was happening musically. And for that, this album is the most “current” album of Smith’s career.
He would record about 10 more albums in a row that are completely indistinguishable from one another. But the strength here lies not in the production (or over-production) but in the strength of a songwriter album to have his songs outlast even the dated production technique.